ESPN, Monday Night Football, and Controversy

“Are you ready for some football?!”

The classic Monday Night Football introduction song was pulled when Hank Williams compared the prospect of Speaker of The House John Boehner and President Obama meeting to “Hitler playing golf with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu”.

His comments were met with a tidal wave of shock, anger, and cries of racism.

ESPN (and it’s parent company, Disney) decided that Williams’ comment was too controversial and yanked his introductory video from the broadcast. ESPN’s anchors did not discuss the reasons for the song’s omission.

It was a gutless move by ESPN and Disney.

Williams is not an employee of ESPN or ABC network, but he is linked to one of their most popular programs. ESPN has a duty to protect it’s image, stakeholders, and programming, so I understand why they might distance themselves from Williams at this time.

However, this sort of knee-jerk behavior will continue to dissuade public figures from saying anything the least bit controversial.

Fans and media whine about perfunctory “we played a good game” or “we need to dig deeper” comments from professional athletes, coaches and other public figures at press conferences. We want more than an empty quote; we want them to rip their under-achieving teammates and coaches and tell us what they really think about other current events on the political, economic and social landscape.

Yet, when they stray from politically-correct dialogue, the public tears them to pieces. Calls for firings, fines and other punishments are not uncommon.

It’s ironic, really, considering that the media relies on such entertaining quotes to maintain it’s news cycle. Society at large also stands to gain from unconventional thought and emotional and intellectual discomfort. Radical ideas are often harbingers of progress.

ESPN does it’s best to cultivate a clean-cut image, but many of its own missteps have been documented. The company has (justifiably) been labeled as “hypocritical”, considering that it’s largely responsible for many of the NCAA infractions it decries.

Williams issued a statement on Oct. 3, another attempt to explain his earlier comments. Critics were calling for an apology and a retraction of his previous statement. They received neither.

Good move by Williams.

A forced apology would all but assure that he could never publicly utter a politically incorrect statement again, lest he face swift censure. By refusing to apologize, he maintains right to speak his mind and weigh in on important topics, even if it may harm his own public standing.

(Yes, legally he will never lose his First Amendment rights, but how often do you hear any relatively famous person say something the least bit politically-incorrect? They don’t want to deal with any potential criticism or damage to their public reputation.)

And really, how sincere are most public apologies anyway? Public figures recant controversial statements in order to appease vocal critics. Just because they issue an apology, doesn’t mean they actually mean it.

The song should return to the MNF broadcast in time.

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